The quest story is one of our oldest and most enduring storytelling formats. Gilgamesh went on a search for eternal life, Odysseus fought his way home, and Frodo delivered the Ring to Mordor. Though we know it’s a cliche, we also recognize that the real value is found in the journey as much as (or more than) the destination.
Onward, the latest movie from Pixar (recently made available on Disney+) is another fantasy story in the quest tradition. Set in a suburban fantasyland populated entirely by mythological creatures, it’s a world where society has traded the complexities of magic for the convenience of technology. Ancient monuments are in the way of progress, and dangerous taverns have been converted into children’s pizza places.
Troll brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot (voiced by Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, respectively) live with their single mom Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), tolerate her obnoxious boyfriend who happens to be a centaur and chief of police, go to school, and lead relatively “normal” lives. But where Ian is cautious, his older brother lives a life of heroic adventure. Barley loves fantasy games and knows all about magic in theory. He drives his outrageously painted van named Guinevere like a madman (madtroll?), while Ian gets anxious just thinking about driver’s ed.
Though Laurel does the best she can, both brothers miss the father who died before they could remember him. On Ian’s 16th birthday, however, they receive a magical opportunity. When he knew the end was near, their late dad crafted a spell that would bring him back for one day. Back from where isn’t considered, nor are the consequences of resurrecting the dead.
For all his knowledge, Barley has no aptitude for magic. Ian’s attempt is only half successful, as he's only able to bring back half of dad (the lower half) before destroying the magic stone needed to work the spell. In order to meet their dad, the brothers have to find another stone, taking them on a quest that requires courage and sacrifice. If they don’t complete the spell in 24 hours, though, they’ll only have time to get acquainted with dad’s crazy purple socks. Their quest sends Laurel on a journey of her own when she learns her boys are in danger.
This isn’t a story about Ian becoming a great wielder of magic (although he kind of does), or an ends-justify-the-means-caper (although it kind of is). All the magic and hijinks are there to help the brothers learn the true meaning of family and the roles they and their mother fill. The journey also helps them come to appreciate their father’s lasting influence even as they mourn missed opportunities.
Some families will want to avoid the magic in Onward. Yet while the oldest criticism of Disney movies is that they always kill off a parent, this time the significance of fathers and the complexities of going forward when a part of your family is gone are treated with tenderness and respect. (Walt Disney Pictures)